David Roberts, Chief New York Critic, Outer Critics Circle/Drama Desk Member
Buried somewhere beneath the myriad sheets of plywood neatly lining the walls and covering the floors of Circle in the Square is the original sheer splendor, strength, and – yes – the overwhelming darkness of the original production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” Alas, that poor “Oklahoma!” is dead and is unceremoniously buried in Daniel Fish’s pretentious and overwrought “Oklahoma!” – never to be resurrected from the detritus of hanging guns galore, rows of bright red crock pots, and more yodeling than might be found anywhere in the Matterhorn.
In an apparent attempt to create an “Oklahoma!” for the twenty-first century, Daniel Fish not only serves up chili at the interval, but provides the audience a bevy of the kind of theatrical tricks one might expect to find in Ali Hakim’s (Will Brill) traveling salesman’s kit bag of notions and laudanum. These gimmicks include important scenes played out in complete darkness with actors whispering to one another with their “actions” being “exposed” in images projected on the “back” wall of the performance space; two grueling acts with the houselights up most of the time; a “dream ballet” that barely challenges the skills of “Lead Dancer” Gabrielle Hamilton leaving the audience nonplussed; and singing that challenges the very definition of vocal craft.
It is a good thing to attempt to reimagine the classics and many retellings over the decades have been helpful in adding relevance to already relevant plays, musicals, novels, poems, and all other manner of creative expression. This reimagining of “Oklahoma!” adds very little – if anything at all – to the original musical or any of its previous revivals. So, what happened here? Why did what night have worked, not work? There are several important reasons.
Daniel Fish’s revival fails to deliver authentic characters with believable conflicts. Despite the admirable and important diverse casting choices, the characters are not interesting – they come across more as stock characters on the Vaudeville circuit: in fact, the placards of that era might have helped the audience figure out what was going on in this hapless production – especially those not familiar with the original “Oklahoma!” Because the characters and their conflicts are obscured, the plot is thinly developed, and the “darkness” Mr. Fish aims for seems more like “trickery” and sleight of hand. For example, there must be very good reason to give no credence to the importance of the suspension of disbelief. If not dimming the house lights is supposed to draw the audience into some “interactive” experience, that “new” convention had better work – and here it does not. If sitting in the dark is meant to expose the underbelly of characters’ motives, the result must be electrifying and not numbing.
If what was Jud Fry’s (Patrick Vaill) suicide morphs into murder and the murderers Curly McLain (Damon Daunno) and Laurey Williams (Rebecca Naomi Jones) – not the deceased – are sprayed in blood, the cathartic nature of that choice must be clear and not bewildering. It is not that the audience members do not “understand” Daniel Fish’s choices, they just are not sure they are good choices. The audience lives daily with news broadcasts about and personal experiences of systemic racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia (now male cowhands and farmers best not be kissing other male cowhands and farmers), hate crimes against indigenous peoples, injustice in the name of justice, expansionism, gentrification, and white privilege. If a musical is supposed to reverberate with these atrocities, the attempt should tear the plywood from the theater walls with splintering chords: it had better be mighty powerful. This “Oklahoma!” is not and just leaves far too much to be desired and the audience wondering if somehow, they had partaken of the flask Ali Hakim gives to Miss Laurey.
The cast of “Oklahoma!” includes Will Brill, Anthony Cason, Damon Daunno, James Davis, Gabrielle Hamilton, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Will Mann, Mallory Portnoy, Ali Stroker, Mitch Tebo, Mary Testa, and Patrick Vaill.
The creative team includes Daniel Kluger (Orchestrations, Arrangements and Music Supervision), John Heginbotham (New Choreography), Nathan Koci (Music Direction), Laura Jellinek (Scenic Design), Terese Wadden (Costume Design), Scott Zielinski (Lighting Design), Drew Levy (Sound Design), and Joshua Thorson (Projection Design). Casting by Will Cantler and Adam Caldwell/Telsey & Co.
“Oklahoma!” Is based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Lynn Riggs, with original dances by Agnes de Mille and is currently on at Circle in the Square (1633 Broadway at 50th Street). For information about the performance schedule and to purchase tickets, visit https://oklahomabroadway.com/. Running time is 2 hours and 45 minutes including one intermission.
Photo: Damon Daunno and Rebecca Naomi Jones in “Oklahoma!” Credit: Little Fang Photo.